(Reuters) – The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is planning a national study of up to 325,000 people to track how the new corona virus is spreading across the country next year and beyond, a CDC spokesman and researcher who carried out the effort told Reuters.
PHOTO FILE: A health professional draws blood to test antibodies at Mt. Sinai Hospital as a coronavirus spread (COVID-19) continues in the Manhattan, New York City, USA, April 25, 2020. REUTERS / Lucas Jackson / File Photo
The CDC study, which is expected to be launched in June or July, will test samples from blood donors in 25 metropolitan areas for antibodies made when the immune system fights the corona virus, said Dr. Michael Busch, director of the nonprofit Vitalant Research Institute.
Busch led the initial version of the study – funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – which tested the first 36,000 samples.
The CDC-funded portion, which will be officially announced this week, will expand its scope and time frame, taking samples for 18 months to see how antibodies develop over time, said CDC spokesman Christian Nordlund.
Vitalant, a non-profit organization that runs a blood donor center and tests samples, will also lead a broader effort.
The researchers aim to publish the results on a rolling basis, Nordlund said.
Antibody studies, also known as seroprevalence studies, are considered important to understand where the outbreak is spread and can help guide decisions about the restrictions needed to overcome them.
The CDC study must also help scientists better understand whether the immune response to COVID decreases over time.
The new corona virus has infected about 1.5 million people in the United States and killed nearly 90,000, according to a Reuters count.
The CDC study will test blood from 1,000 donors in each of the 25 metro areas every month, for 12 months. The researchers will then test the blood of 25,000 other donors within 18 months. Samples will come from “ordinary, altruistic” people who come to donate blood, Busch said.
Some public health officials complained that the CDC had fallen behind in research and guidance for local governments trying to tackle the pandemic. “We feel exposed at the local level, in not seeing such an organized plan from the CDC,” Dr. Matt Willis, a public health officer for Marin County, California, said in an interview last week.
The research news made Willis feel calm. “Partial answers and initial results are better than none when you have a decision to make” that can affect life, he said, such as when to reopen parks and businesses.
Nordlund of the CDC said the research “shows how leaders across the federal government work collaboratively with partners in academia and in the blood donor and testing industry” to monitor COVID-19.
He added that blood donation results could be used by the CDC to form estimates about the wider population through statistical methods. “This has been done with the West Nile virus, Zika and other emerging infectious diseases,” he said.
The six metropolitan areas surveyed in the preliminary study were New York, Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Boston and Minneapolis, said Dr. Graham Simmons, another Vitalant researcher involved in the project. “In all likelihood” the next phase will add Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Denver and others, said Simmons.
“We have chosen sites to provide broad geographical distribution throughout the country,” Simmons said, including sites with high infection rates or places where rates might increase.
Researchers at John Hopkins University, in a 2019 paper, found blood donors, which are very healthy, are not always the ideal population for research. (bit.ly/2LDtz910)
The CDC study may not “produce generalizable results for the population,” Thomas McDade, a researcher at Northwestern University, said in an interview.
However, that could “substantially add to our understanding of infection (COVID-19),” Dr. Susan Philip, deputy health officer at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
“This will be a large sample size, geographically diverse … and quickly prepared,” Philip added.
Some local governments have conducted their own seroprevalence research. New York in April found antibodies in more than 20% of about 3,000 test subjects, indicating the number of people exposed to the virus in the worst hit was far higher than the 355,000 that had tested positive.
Last week, an antibody study by the city of Boston and Massachusetts General Hospital found 10% of the population had COVID-19 antibodies. The Spanish government runs a study that shows exposure to 5% of people – showing 10 times the number of positive cases confirmed.
Reporting by Nick Brown; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Bill Berkrot
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